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The Grand Inquisitor Category: Texts The Religious Foundations of Bolshevism

Post-Atheist Spirituality in Russia: Minimal Religion
Mikhail Epstein

The visual possibilities of angelism, with its magic plasticity of multidimensional bodies appearing out of nowhere and disappearing into nothing, have been welcomed by Western video culture, which has been courting these new religious tendencies with its commercial and technical talents. Angelism, as the brainchild of video culture and Postmodernism, has not yet been transplanted to Russia. This is partly connected with the previously mentioned apophatic roots of Russian religiosity, which negates any form of bodily incarnation or manifestation of faith. The cult of angels would be as discordant with the traditions of Russian spirituality as sculptures are incompatible with the interior of Orthodox churches. The question we want to examine is how this apophatic tradition manifests itself in contemporary Russian religious life, on the eve and after the demise of the atheistic State and its ideological apparatus.

Atheism, as has already been pointed out, was the crassest and most extreme manifestation of apophaticism. It negated not only the possibility of knowing God but the very existence of God. In practice, atheism took the form of persecution of priests and the faithful, the closure of churches, and the eradication of all traces of religious culture.

This spiritual vacuum, created by Soviet atheism, gave rise, in the 1970s and 1980s, to a new type of religiosity. In an essay written in 1982 I called this post-atheist spirituality "poor," or "minimal" religion. It took the form of "faith pure and simple," without clarifications or addenda, without any clear denominational characteristics. It manifested itself as an indivisible sense of God, outside historical, national and confessional traditions. Thus minimal religion became the next stage of apophaticism after it had crossed the line of atheism and reclaimed its religious content. The atheistic negation of all religions gave rise to a "minimal" religiosity negating all positive distinctions among historical religions. Paradoxically, this "faith as such," "faith in general" was prepared by the atheist denial of all faiths.

A typical expression of such "minimal religiosity" can be found in the simple "credo" of a well-known contemporary Russian artist, Garif Basyrov (born in 1944). Asked if he could be considered a faithful Muslim, Basyrov replied: "That's ridiculous. As any normal person I feel I am approaching something . . . To use high-flown words, you can say I am on my way. But I am neither an expert in Islam, Buddhism, nor Christianity. All these rituals are not for me. One thing I do know for sure: God exists."

For a minimal believer, God exists above and beyond all religions, thus nullifying their historical divisions. What is at issue here is the possibility of establishing a unitary religious consciousness through the experience of the negative void of the atheist world. This post-atheist spirituality is as historically unprecedented as the phenomenon of mass atheism that preceded and conditioned it.

The seven decades of Soviet atheism, whether one calls it 'mass atheism,' 'scientific atheism' or 'state atheism', was unquestionably a new phenomenon in world history.

Mass heresies were known before, but these did not change the core of a religious perception of the world. They did not suspend the belief in God, the Holy Scriptures, or the possibility of the soul's salvation. The German Anabaptists are a case in point.

In the past there have been periods of libertine thought, but these touched only the intellectual tip of the social iceberg without altering the religious mood of the masses. The French Enlightenment is a case in point.

Only in the Soviet Union did militant atheism penetrate into the masses. It created several generations of non-believers. Even if the majority were not antagonistic to religion, they became profoundly indifferent to it. Even if they themselves did not destroy churches and burn icons, neither did they pray or invoke the name of God; indeed they forgot about His very existence.

Could religion, which had been subjected to such a long period of persecutions and negations, be simply reborn in its earlier traditional forms? Or, on the contrary, could it be inferred that, since atheism was an historically new phenomenon, post-atheist spirituality, which superseded it, would have to be even more of a novelty?

* * *

What is taking place at present in post-atheist Russian society can be divided into three major tendencies.

One of these tendencies constitutes a "religious revival" proper. It is a return of Russian society to its pre-atheist beliefs. The traditional religions­Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism­are regaining their status and influence in the spiritual, cultural, and even political life of Russia. Not surprisingly, these newly-converted believers bring an emotional ardor and dogmatic ignorance to the life of their new Church. They are also bearers of a protective, romantic nationalism and messianism. However, in the end none of it goes beyond the confines of tradition: it merely fine-tunes the tradition to meet current needs.

Another tendency seeks to restore not the pre-revolutionary, but the archaic layers of religious traditions and can be characterized as neopaganism. As its adherents see it, Russia's salvation is not to be sought in a religion of the spirit, but in the ancient cult of nature. What is required is an immediate restoration of the pre-Christian Russian and Arian pantheon. More often than not, neopaganism is mixed with elegiac ecological sentiments, in which the pagan cult of nature is presented as the defender of nature against the encroachments of civilization. It is even more common to see Orthodox Christianity interpreted in the pagan spirit, as a special branch of Christianity, intimately connected to Russia's state and military apparatus and its God-bearing people. The advantage of Orthodoxy vis-à-vis other Christian confessions lies in its doubling as both a religion of the Heavenly Father and an ancient cult of Mother-Earth. Orthodoxy in this context appears as a militant form of patriotism, destined, from time immemorial, to defend Holy Russia from the "heresies" of Judaism, Catholicism, Freemasonry and other "foreign contaminations." The new paganism also features the cultivation of magic, extra-sensory perception, para-psychology, spiritism and other similar beliefs, which go back to the earliest animistic and fetishistic practices.

Together with the return to traditional religion and the parallel immersion in pagan and Orthodox archaism, a third tendency can be observed in contemporary Russian religious life. To date, it has attracted the least attention because it tends to escape all forms of objectification. Its "minimality" almost precludes the formation of dogma or ritual and can be identified only as an internal impulse, a state of spirit, or a disposition of mind. This is what I call "poor" or "minimal" religion. For a Western observer, a more "recognizable" name for it would be religious modernism, universalism or ecumenicism, even if these terms do not exactly correspond to the Russian phenomenon.

Imagine a young man from a typical Soviet family which, for two or three generations, was resolutely cut off from all religious traditions. Suddenly hearing a spiritual call in his soul, he cannot decide where to go in search of salvation. He tries the Othodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Jewish Synagogue, Baptist and Lutheran services. He finds historically shaped traditions of faith everywhere. Yet he is eager to experience spirit as whole and indivisible. Looking for faith he finds only different denominations.

It is in this disparity between faith and beliefs that "minimal" religion emerges. It is a religion without an order of service, holy books, or specific rituals. It is notable that many more people are now abandoning atheism than joining specific denominations. These people can be characterized as "poor believers" who do not subscribe to any specific set of conventional religious practices. They belong to "religion" as such, without further definitions or qualifications. Their relationship to God is holistic, mirroring the wholeness and indivisibility of God Himself.

Thus the religious revival in post-communist Russia is not only a renaissance of traditional beliefs, which were widespread before the atheistic revolution: it is also the naissance of a qualitatively new, post-atheist kind of spirituality. In the soul of a "poor believer" there are no dogmatic or ritual preferences created by either a continuous historical tradition or long-standing family religious commitments. Just as the divisions among farmers' holdings were destroyed during collectivization, turning fertile land into wasteland, so the confessional divisions were also erased. This prepared the post-Soviet wasteland not only for a revival of old traditions, but also for a renewal of the religious consciousness as such, capable of transcending historically established boundaries.

In the prophet Isaiah we read: "There is a voice that cries: Prepare a road for the Lord through the wilderness, clear a highway across the desert for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, every hill and mountain brought low: rugged places shall be made smooth and mountain-ranges be made a plain. Thus shall the glory of the Lord be revealed, and all mankind together shall see it: for the Lord himself hath spoken" (Isaiah, 40:3 -5).

A question arises: Was not this prophecy implemented, with uncanny precision, by Soviet atheism? Did not atheism actually prepare a road for "the glory of the Lord" by persecuting all beliefs, levelling all mountains and valleys, smoothing out different beliefs so that a trans-confessional spirituality could arise?

* * *

When I wrote the essay "Minimal Religion" in 1982, there was no way to substantiate my observations with sociological data. Now, with the development of democratic procedures in Russia, we have the instruments to test statistically the validity of these theoretical assumptions. A poll conducted in December 1995, by the Center for Sociological Research of Moscow State University, under the direction of S. V. Tumanov, shows (from a sampling of 3,710 respondents) that 37,7% of the Russian population characterized itself as believers who do not observe religious rituals; only 12,8% of the respondents characterized themselves as observant believers. With regard to confessional self-determination, 12,8 % of the religious population identify themselves as Christians in general (non-denominational), as compared with 71,0% Orthodox, O,2% Catholics, and 0,7% Protestants. In addition, 2,7% of the believers do not perceive any essential difference among denominations, and 2,5% have their own perception of God. Based on these statistics we can conclude that approximately 18% of the Russian religious population is non-denominational.

Lyudmila Vorontsova and Sergei Filatov cite even more striking statistical data concerning what they call "just Christians" in contemporary Russia. "The growth of religiosity and the increase in those who believe in God has not been accompanied by a growth in the popularity of Orthodoxy. Indeed, the years 1990-1992 saw a sharp fall in its popularity. /.../ Orthodoxy's main competitor is not other religions, but the swiftly growing category of people with no denominational adherence: 'just Christians.' They grew two and a half times over the three years 1989-92 and in 1992 made up 52 percent of the population, while the number of Orthodox (of all jurisdictions) decreased. /.../ 'Just Christians' are the neophytes who believe in God and have come to faith but are not prepared to enter the church unconditionally and to accept church disciplines... The fact that the number of 'just Christians' is growing at the expense of Orthodoxy testifies to the rebirth of Christianity not in the form of Orthodoxy as it was 70 years ago, but on a more modern, universal level.""

* * *

The phenomenon of 'minimal religiosity' is illuminated by numerous works of Russian literature of the 1970s and 1980s. The literary protagonists of Andrei Bitov, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Yuri Trifonov, Vasily Aksyonov, Bella Akhmadulina and Venedikt Erofeev all crave for a higher spirituality. To satisfy this craving, the heroes of this 'new' Russian literature cannot turn to traditional forms of religiosity, because for several decades such forms had no common currency in Russian life. The new religiosity, which these fictional characters come to embody, is alienated from all objectified historical traditions.

The autobiographical protagonist of Bitov's story "Birds" [Ptitsy] is a typical "poor believer." Caught in a terrible thunder storm, which to him appears to presage the end of the world, he feels the need to pray to the Almighty, but his prayer comes out as "some sort of lowing prayer without words." He is utterly shocked when, under the influence of his fear, he suddenly crosses himself quickly and correctly as he had never done before.

Another 'poor believer' of Russian fiction of the 1970s is Venia Erofeev, the autobiographical protagonist of Venedikt Erofeev's novella Moscow to the End of the Line (Moskva-Petushki). Venia occasionally turns to God with the plea: "Oh, Lord, you see what I possess. But do I need all this ? Is this what my soul pines for?" Venia's "Lord" exists outside all traditions and confessions. He has no temple in this world other than the littered train from which the hero's soul addresses itself to Him. The hero also has no church, no preconceived notion of religion, and no other method of proof of God's existence than the "hiccups" that overpower and release him with equal suddenness. "The Law is higher than all of us. Hiccups are higher than the Law . . . We are trembling creatures while hickuping is almighty. It is God's Right Hand, which is raised over us all . . . He cannot be conceived by the mind, therefore He exists. So be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

The "sixth" proof of God"s existence­proof by hiccups­may appear blasphemous or at the very least parodic in relation to canonical theological discourse. However, its main function is not comic or parodic. It acts, instead, as a revelation of the apophatic spirit of "poor" religiosity, which is on a par with the sacrilegious and eccentric behaviour of the Russian fools-in-Christ, or "holy fools." The same logic of the negative knowledge of God applies here. Man knows God through things that man cannot control by his will or reason. Hiccups are an elementary example of such a thing: they are a sequence of unwilled bodily movements at unregulated temporal intervals. Using this negative logic, Erofeev can make the assertion, which appears to have come straight out of a treatise on apophatic theology: "He [God] cannot be conceived by reason, so consequently He is."

The transitional stage between (Marxist) atheism and (Christian) faith is admirably illustrated in Yuz Aleshkovsky's narrative The Ring in the Case (Persten' v futliare), with the characteristic subtitle "A Christmas Novel." This didactic and grotesque narrative portrays the transformation into a "poor believer" of one Helio Revolverovich Serious, a die-hard atheist and "third-generation fighter against bourgeois prejudices," whose efforts to stamp out the belief in God have earned him a position in the upper ranks of the party hierarchy. Shaken by the disintegration of his relationship with his beloved woman, and reduced to the breaking-point by the misery of his physical and spiritual existence, Helio suddenly experiences the need for prayer, not knowing to whom to address himself or about what to pray:

"Perhaps I should have another try at praying to . . . but what can one pray about? That's the question . . . About love?. . . It's too late . . . About salvation?. . ."

The numerous marks of omission are significant. They are a graphic embodiment of his impoverished religious feeling or, to be more specific, the apophatic nature of this religiosity, which cannot use images or words to describe the One, Who . . .

The hero then resorts to poetry and addresses Him with a line from Pasternak: "O Lord, how perfect are Thy works!" However, he never specifies­neither for himself nor for the reader­whom he actually means when he says "Oh, Lord!" The phrase is pronounced almost like an interjection, a sigh ­ "Oh, Lord!" But in this case the universal character of the interjection does not signify indifference or automatism. On the contrary, it bears the stamp of a meaning attained through suffering and deeply-felt experience. What would seem more natural for this seasoned atheist, erudite in the dialectic of 'relativism' ("The Moslems picture him as Allah, while for the Christians he is simultaneously Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which shows that the assumptions of the different religions contradict one another, revealing their complete implausibility . . ."), than to ask himself: whom am I addressing, which God?

And that is precisely the point: twentieth century atheism used the diversity and historicity of the world's religions and spiritual traditions as its most powerful argument against faith; that is, since there are so many religions, each with its own god, then there is no god. It was atheism that asked all those official, "passportlike" questions, trying to specify to which tradition or confession "god" might appertain: "date of birth," "nationality," "place of residence," and so on. It was a natural reaction on the part of post-atheist religiosity to erase this entire panoply of historical and national "essences" and to make a fresh start by setting up a pure, universal, "poor" and singular name, analagous to the interjection "Oh, God!" or "Oh, Lord!" lacking all specificity and without any determinants whatsoever. Atheism had used the diversity of religions to argue for the relativity of religion. Consequently, the demise of atheism signalled the return to the simplest, virtually empty and infinite form of monotheism and monofideism. If God is One, then faith must be one.

Sooner or later, a minimal believer usually joins a specific religious tradition, becoming an Orthodox Christian, a Baptist, or a Jew. But after having experienced this resonant space of the void, of the wilderness, of the "darkness upon the face of the deep," s/he preserves this new feeling of openness forever. It is there, in a wasteland of spirit, without any preparations, baptisms, and cathechisms, that God suddenly grabbed hold of him. In most places around the world, people are raised within a specific religious tradition and are brought to a church, a mosque or a synagogue from childhood. In contemporary Russia, however, many people first experience the spirit in their hearts and then come to houses of worship. There are two different ways of conversion. One is a conversion to God through the church. This is the normal way of 'conversion' in the world with established religious traditions. The other is a conversion to the church through God. This was the way of conversion in the times of Moses, Christ, and Luther. It is also the way of conversion in late atheist and post-atheist Russia.

One might speculate that this thrust toward religious reformation will dominate the spirit of twenty-first century Russia. The restoration of pre-atheist traditions is the focus of the current religious revival, but the atheistic past, the experience of the wilderness, cannot pass without a trace, and this trace of 'the void' will manifest itself in a striving for a fullness of spirit, transcending the boundaries of historical denominations. Those people who have found God in the wilderness feel that the walls of the existing temples are too narrow for them and should be expanded.

Thus we have seen that three tendencies can be discerned in the misty dawn of Earth's first post-atheist society. One is traditionalism, which is housed in existing churches and subscribes to the existing religious subdivisions. A second is neopaganism, which is focused on archaic objects of worship such as the soil, blood, and national identity. The third is 'poor' or 'minimal' religion, which is free from historical divisions and seeks the unification of all religions in the gap between existing churches and the fullness of a future Epiphany.

It is significant that Russian religious thought of the early twentieth century, which now serves as a general reference point on all questions of Russian spirituality, furnishes models for all three tendencies. Traditionalism is connected with the figure of the priest Pavel Florensky. Its firm basis is in the philosophically interpreted Church canon and the heritage of the Church Fathers. The second, archaist, tendency is connected with the name of Vasily Rozanov. It is close to paganism and the primal cults of sun and earth, consecrating the universe of sex drives and fecundity. The third, Modernist, tendency, inspired by Nikolai Berdiaev, issues from the apophatic conception of pure freedom, which posits itself as anterior to God and the act of creation. It presupposes an ecumenical unification of all religions in anticipation of the future Coming of God and the eschatological end of history.

* * *

While resisting and transcending totalitarianism, the post-atheist tendency of minimal religion nevertheless seeks to create a possibility for a new totality. Though the value of difference is not abandoned, post-atheist spirituality presupposes the value of something that is different from difference itself: some new, tentative, virtual, hypothetical, non-violent form of unity.

The very concept of spirituality seems strange and dated in the postmodern age, requiring theoretical revitalization. By de-emphasizing the category of 'spirituality,' postmodern theory demonstrates its own limitations and points to the need for a new, broader paradigm of thought. The Russian post-atheist experience is valuable not only because it can be related to certain postmodern theological speculations which undermine the representability of God, but also because it leads beyond the conceptual framework of Postmodernism by restoring the meaning of such an 'obsolete' category as spirituality.

The notion of "Russian spirituality" evokes, for me, a distinct image, found in the first lines of the Book of Genesis: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (Genesis, 1:2). Essentially, Spirit is named and identified only at the very beginning of the creation of the world. In the subsequent acts of creation, God divides the world into light and darkness, separates water from dry land. But there is no mention of spirit, perhaps because spirit precedes all divisions, sweeps across all boundaries. And this is also true of the Russian mode of spirituality. It is as if this country were once again, through the destruction of all established religious forms and confessions, being thrown back into the atmosphere of the first day of creation. As Nikolai Berdiaev remarked, "[T]here is that in the Russian soul which corresponds to the immensity, the vagueness, the infinitude of the Russian land: spiritual geography corresponds with physical. In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia." Through division, new structures come into existence. But spirit is undivided and indivisible. It is both total and negative. It negates all forms because it moves in the void and in darkness, on "the earth without form."

Spirituality, as it emerges from the ruins of totalitarianism, recognizes the dignity of diverse ethnic and religious traditions but is not satisfied by any single one. Rather it seeks to establish a sacred space across the boundaries of cultures. Through such a phenomenon as minimal religion, Russian culture allows a glimpse of a new, post-postmodern perspectiveon spirituality, anticipated by its tragic experience of atheism, this "darkness upon the face of the deep."

In 'classic' postmodernism, difference is opposed to unity ­ a unity whose totalitarian claims postmodernism rightly regards with suspicion. But in this rigid form, difference is confined to one dimension, ironically tending to foster relativistic indifference toward the various traditions and values. If all things and positions are simply different, there can be no deep mutual involvement among them, since any involvement presupposes at least the creation of a virtual unity. The question is: What is different from difference itself? How can difference be what it is without incessant differentiation precisely from what it is? Multidimensional difference would be the process of self-differentiation, giving rise to new, non-violent, non-totalitarian totalities "different from difference," thereby proceeding not from a single will or power, but from the "zero point" or "border line" within diversity. Minimal religion can be regarded as one possibile form of these new, non-totalitarian totalities.

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